After Valjean and Cosette left the convent, they settled in to the house on the Rue Plumet and lived there quietly. Cosette lived in the main house while Valjean lived in the guesthouse in the back. She loved Valjean and spent almost all of her time with him.
One of the tensions that Valjean felt at this point had to do with Cosette’s mother, Fantine. Cosette had never known her mother. When she was little, Valjean talked about her frequently, but now he said nothing whenever Cosette asked about her.
Jean Valjean’s silence veiled Fantine with night.
Was this prudence? Was it respect? Was it a fear of giving up that name to the chances of another memory than his own?
While Cosette was a little girl, Jean Valjean had been fond of talking with her about her mother; when she was older, he found it impossible. It seemed to him he no longer dared. Was this on account of Cosette? Was it because of Fantine? He felt a sort of religious horror at introducing that shade into Cosette’s thoughts and at bringing in the dead as a party to their destiny. The more sacred that shade was to him, the more intimidating it seemed to him. He thought of Fantine and felt overwhelmed with silence. He could dimly see in the darkness something like a finger raised to lips. Had all that modesty that had once been Fantine’s and, during her life, had been forced out of her by violence, returned after her death to take its place over her, to watch, indignant, over the peace of the dead woman, and to guard her fiercely in her tomb? Did Jean Valjean, without knowing it, feel its influence? We who believe in death are not among those who would reject his mysterious explanation. Hence the impossibility of pronouncing, even for Cosette, that name, “Fantine.”
But one day Cosette looked in the mirror and discovered she was actually beautiful. This was an unexpected surprise for her; all her life she had been told that she was “homely”–meaning that she wasn’t much to look at. She had grown to accept this, so when she saw that she was beautiful, it came as a shock to her.
This was not a happy time for Valjean. He loved Cosette and wished for her to love him in return. But when she became beautiful, he knew that she would no longer love him like she did as a child. She would be interested in other men, and eventually one would come and take her away. He struggled intensely with this.
Cosette had been beautiful for some time before she noticed it. But, from the first day, this unexpected light that rose slowly and by degrees enveloped the young girl’s whole person wounded Jean Valjean’s gloomy eyes. He felt it as a change in a happy life, so happy that he dared not stir for fear of disturbing something. This man who had passed through every distress, who was still all bleeding from the lacerations of his destiny, who had been almost evil and had become almost holy, who, after dragging the chain of the work gang, now bore the invisible but heavy chain of indefinite infamy, this man whom the law had not released, and who might at any moment be retaken and led back from the obscurity of his virtue to the broad light of public shame, this man accepted all, excused all, pardoned all, blessed all, wished well to all, and only asked of Providence, of men, of the laws, of society, of nature, of the world, this one thing, that Cosette love him!
That Cosette would continue to love him! That God would not prevent the heart of his child from turning to him, and remaining his! Loved by Cosette, he felt healed, refreshed, soothed, satisfied, rewarded, crowned. Loved by Cosette, he was content! He asked nothing more. Had anybody said to him, “Do you wish for anything better?” he would have answered, “No.” Had God said to him, “Do you want heaven?” he would have answered, “I would be the loser.”
Anything that could affect this condition, be it only on the surface, made him shudder as if it were the beginning of change. He had never known very clearly what the beauty of a woman was; but by instinct he understood that it was terrible.
This beauty blooming more and more triumphant and superb beside him, under his very eyes, on the naive and intimidating brow of this child–he looked at it, from the depths of his ugliness, his old age, his misery, his reprobation, and his dejection, with dismay.
He said to himself, “How beautiful she is! What will become of me?”
Here in fact was the difference between his tenderness and the tenderness of a mother. What he saw with anguish, a mother would have seen with delight.
Even in the height of Cosette’s beauty we see that something is missing in her life because she does not have a mother. Hugo goes on to note that anyone who saw Cosette on the street could have seen that she did not have a mother; she failed to observe certain small proprieties in her dress that a mother would have been able to point out to her.
The last paragraph above points out the greatest deficit in Cosette’s life from not having a mother: A mother would have celebrated the changes that were happening in Cosette’s life at this time. Valjean does not celebrate these changes like a mother would; instead he feels threatened because he fears that Cosette’s beauty will draw her away from him.
When Cosette realized that she was beautiful, she began to pay attention to her clothing. Overnight she became an expert in fashion, and she became one of the best dressed women in all of Paris.
Jean Valjean watched these ravages with anxiety. He, who felt that he could never do better than creep, or walk at the most, saw wings growing on Cosette.
…In learning that she was beautiful, Cosette lost the grace of not knowing it; an exquisite grace, for beauty heightened by artlessness in ineffable, and nothing is so adorable as dazzling innocence, going about her business and holding in her hand, quite unconsciously, the key to a paradise. But what she lost in ingenuous grace, she gained in pensive and serious charm. Her whole person, pervaded by the joys of youth, innocence, and beauty, breathed a splendid melancholy.
Here we see more of the imagery of birds vs earthbound creatures which is a recurring theme in this story. Earlier Hugo likened Cosette at the Thenardiers to a fly serving spiders. In this imagery Cosette (the fly) at least had the power to rise above the earth and above her circumstances, however cruel they might have been, while the Thenardiers (the spiders) were earthbound creatures who were powerless to rise above the earth or above the misery of their circumstances or the corruption in their hearts.
But here Valjean sees Cosette sprouting wings while he sees himself earthbound, with no power to do anything more than crawl or walk at the most. Valjean is right about Cosette, but his perception of himself is not at all consistent with reality, as we see over the course of the story.